Apr 13, 2011

The Christian and Science

14 Min Read

What is the Christian’s role in the scientific enterprise? How do we as Christians live in a culture that has been shaped and influenced by the impact of scientific accomplishments?

Lest we slip into critical attitudes toward science, we must remember that science began with a mandate God gave in creation. God commanded Adam and Eve to have dominion over the earth and to subdue it. There is a sense in which man was created to conquer the universe in which he lives. The scientific enterprise is a part of that task. At the same time, certain restrictions and constraints are placed upon man in creation. We are called not only to be productive, but to dress, till, and keep the earth, and to replenish it. In the initial mandate for the scientific enterprise, there were governing sanctions. The scientific enterprise is to be under the authority of God and restrained by the law of God. Implicit in the mandate is the prohibition against the exploitation of natural resources, the raping of the world over which we have been given dominion.

For centuries, there were broad areas of cooperation between the church and the scientific community. They worked hand in hand. The vocation of the scientist was seen as a calling from God Himself. There was a kind of unity between the spiritual quest of man and the natural quest of science.

Increasingly, it seems, a break is developing between man’s spiritual life and his natural or scientific life. Perhaps we still have not healed the wounds from the Galileo episode in the seventeenth century. In that drama, Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church for his scientific activity, and his scientific work was banned. Only recently has that ban been removed. This act served to heighten a growing sense that there are two different realms, the realm of faith or religion, and the realm of reason or science. The tension between the two accelerated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and came to a head in the 1925 Scopes trial involving the issues of teaching evolution.

Galileo: What Really Happened?

The Galileo trial is generally regarded as a black eye for the church. The popular impression is that Galileo’s plight was the result of blind conflict between dogma and fact, between faith and science. A closer scrutiny of the historic debate reveals that the scientists within the church were as hostile to Galileo’s discoveries as were the bishops. Galileo challenged the “orthodoxy” of science as well as the church. It wasn’t merely the bishops who refused to look through his telescope. His fellow scientists were equally reluctant to take a peek.

Though the facts of history show otherwise, the impression that has been passed down to us is that the church and the church alone was guilty of suppressing Galileo’s discoveries. As a result, the church lost credibility and a growing rupture occurred between church and science, a rupture that is utterly foreign to biblical Christianity.

We often hear the assumption that if one is to be a Christian in our modern age, he must be something of an intellectual schizophrenic. He must somehow put his faith on one side of the room and his reason and scientific investigation on the other side, because the two are simply incompatible.

We have been considering throughout our study the dilemma that modern man faces with that wall which divides the metaphysical realm from the physical realm. This great watershed in Western civilization came with the criticism of Immanuel Kant. Kant maintained that our normal methods of knowing man never take us beyond the limits of this world and into the realm of God. The scientific method, therefore, is useful for the study of physics, but not for the study of metaphysics. It is useful for the study of nature, but not for the study of super-nature. The essence of Kant’s critique was that God cannot be known by theoretical thought.

That was a watershed moment in Western history. Since then, multitudes of thinkers have succumbed to skepticism and have said that if we are to have any knowledge of God or any religious truth, that knowledge must be achieved not by reason or by scientific observations. We must conjure up a new way to get over that wall. This is done either through an existential experience or through mystical intuition. The result is that normal avenues of knowing are closed to the things of God.

However, not every Christian has rolled over and played dead at the feet of Immanuel Kant. As soon as we embrace the idea that God is only known mystically and that the world is only known scientifically, we create a kind of personal schizophrenia that is intolerable for the intelligent person. Therefore, as missionaries to our culture, we must deal with this problem.

Is Aquinas to Blame?

Many Protestant scholars venture earlier into church history and lay the blame for this division at the feet of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Among Protestant thinkers, there seems to be a kind of allergy to the work of Aquinas. Francis Schaeffer, for example, is one who would lay much of the blame for today’s schizophrenic view on Aquinas. Schaeffer argued that the root of modern man’s trauma lies in the separation that Aquinas made between the realms of nature and grace. The realm of nature is the daily arena of his visible world, the scientific inquiry. The realm of grace is the supernatural realm of God. If Aquinas did in fact separate nature and grace, then certainly Dr. Schaeffer would be correct in pointing the finger at Saint Thomas for causing a significant part of modern man’s dilemma. I plead for Aquinas, that he was not guilty of the charge. Aquinas did everything in his power to prevent a separation of nature and grace. He labored tirelessly to combat the efforts of philosophers who were making such a separation. Let us briefly consider the historical background.

In Aquinas’s day, the Christian world faced the greatest threat that it had seen in centuries. This threat did not come from existentialism or pragmatism or secularism. The threat to the church in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was the rising tide of Islamic religion and philosophy. The Crusades had attempted to recapture the sacred places of traditional Christianity, which had fallen under the dominion of the Turks. Islam had made an enormous impact in the world and was now reaching into Western civilization.

The greatest philosophical thinkers of the Islamic world had combined Islamic religion with Aristotelian philosophy to produce a system which they called “integral Aristotelianism.” The technical term is not important to remember but the emerging relationship it represented is important. The product of this thought became widespread during this time and it greatly affected Christians. The key idea was called by the Islamic philosophers “double truth.” The concept of double truth was that a notion could be true in theology or religion and, at the same time, false in philosophy or science. A person was expected to go through life holding both views which were, in fact, contradictory. In the twentieth century, this notion of double truth is more widespread than in any other period of civilization, even though we do not call it by that term.

I can illustrate the idea this way: on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, I may say that I believe in chance evolution with no rhyme nor reason for it. Evolution was merely a chaotic result of chance. However, on Sunday I may believe that man was created in the image of God. By faith, I believe that man has dignity and purpose; that he is rooted and grounded in an intelligent act of creation by an Eternal Being. The rest of the week I have to be an honest scientist and believe that man emerged as a cosmic accident. How can I hold those two views at the same time? I am not attempting to raise issues concerning the various viewpoints of evolution and creationism. My purpose is to show that a belief in the two extremes at the same time demands a kind of intellectual schizophrenia. The two viewpoints are utterly incompatible. Yet people today want to be spiritual, and at the same time they want to be scientific. How can we deal with this dilemma?

Aquinas addressed the problem by distinguishing between nature and grace. Notice that he merely distinguished between the two, he did not separate them. He distinguished between those things which could be learned through a study of nature and those things which could only be learned through a study of grace.

Here we face a subtle matter that is often missed even by acute thinkers. There is a subtle difference between a distinction and a separation. Though the difference is subtle, it is vastly important. It has been said that “A woman’s prerogative is to change her mind.” We might add to that the saying, “A theologian’s prerogative is to make distinctions.”

One of the most important distinctions we can make is the distinction between a distinction and a separation. It is one thing to distinguish things; it is quite another thing to separate them. If I distinguish your body and your soul I do you no harm. If I separate your body and your soul, I murder you. If we distinguish the divine and human natures of Christ, we are orthodox; if we separate the divine and human natures of Christ, we are gross heretics.

When Aquinas distinguished between nature and grace, he said that we can learn certain truths only through the study of nature. We can study Scripture and pray all we want and we will not be able to discern the route that is taken by the blood in the human circulatory system. Nor will a close scrutiny of the Bible reveal all the intricacies involved in the Second Law of Thermodynamics or the process of an amoeba’s split and growth. These things we learn through a study of nature. The Bible does not discuss every aspect of knowledge that is available to us.

Aquinas also said that certain things can only be learned by grace, by special revelation. We can study the circulatory system of the body, geometry tables, or any other scientific discipline but we will never discern in them the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ. Through a study of nature, we will never learn of the Atonement of Jesus or the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Such information comes to us from God in Scripture.

All Truth Meets at the Top

Aquinas then insisted that there are “mixed articles,” truths that can be learned from both nature and revelation. An example of a mixed article would be the knowledge that God exists. Aquinas was not separating nature and grace; he was showing us that both nature and grace ultimately lead us to the same place, to God. A study of nature may not teach us everything there is to know about God, but a correct study of nature will certainly teach us that there is a God.

Aquinas was an apostle of the unity of truth. His working assumption was that all truth meets at the top. What is true in science will ultimately undergird that which is true in religion. He is not saying that contradictions will be resolved at the top. He is saying that truth is always consistent and coherent. We may have in the Bible one source of information about reality, and in nature another source of information about reality. The Bible may provide information that is not obtainable from nature and, vice versa, nature may supply data which we have no knowledge of from the Bible. But those two sources of information can never conflict with each other if, indeed, we understand them aright. Does that mean that Aquinas therefore subordinated the Bible to science? Not at all. He affirmed that the highest source of truth is God’s divine revelation in the Scriptures.

Yet the Bible is not the only source of revelation. There is that which we call “general revelation,” and it comes to us from nature. The Bible itself speaks of it. What is known from nature can supplement what is known from the Bible. It can never contradict it. What do we do, however, if sometimes nature seems to contradict the Bible? This was the crucial problem in the case of Galileo. Galileo said, “I can prove that the earth is not in the center of the solar system by means of my telescope. Before now, we were unable to examine this with the eye, but now we can.” Galileo said to the princes of the church, “Look through this telescope and see if I’m not right.” The church leaders refused to look because they had already set in concrete a dogma that said that the earth was the center of the solar system. The princes said, “We don’t care what the telescope says. You must be wrong because the Bible says that the earth is the center.”

If the Bible teaches unequivocably that the earth is the center of the universe, then the center of the universe is the earth. However, we must first examine the Scriptures to see if God indeed says that. If there is absolutely no doubt that God says the earth is the center, then we know that the earth is the center of the universe regardless of what Galileo says. We can applaud to a certain degree the obstinacy of the church leaders because they were convinced that God had said one thing and they heard Galileo say another.

But the Bible does not say that the earth is the center of the universe. The debate was not between God and Galileo, as the Catholic princes insisted; it was between the Ptolemaic astronomers and the Copernican astronomers. Unfortunately, the church rulers had put its blessing upon an earlier scientific model that they should not have blessed. They got egg on their faces when they tied the Ptolemaic system with divine revelation and eventually had to confess that they were wrong. In the final analysis, it was not a conflict between the Word of God and the word of Galileo. It is quite possible for science to correct theology. Understand--it is impossible for science to correct the Word of God, but it is possible for science to correct the word of the theologian. The judicious theologian must be careful to examine knowledge that comes to us from nature as well as knowledge that comes to us from grace, lest in a misguided zeal he establishes false conflicts between the two.

Historically, an example of a healthy attitude toward science and revelation was found in Isaac Newton. He did not live in fear of contradicting his faith through the study of the world. He said that the activity of the scientist is to think God’s thoughts after him. Newton’s was a humble, as well as a careful approach. He understood that all truth meets at the top.

Christians Need Not Fear Scientific Inquiry

There is a sense in which the Christian should be the most passionate scientist of all because he should be rigorously open to truth wherever it is found. He should not be afraid that a new discovery of something that is true will destroy his foundation for truth. If our foundation for truth is true, all other truth can only support it and enhance it. It can’t destroy it. Therefore, Christians ought not to be afraid of scientific inquiry. This does not mean that we should uncritically accept all pronouncements and pontifications of scientists. Scientists are fallible and may occasionally make arrogant statements that go far beyond the realm of their own expertise.

Recently I read an essay by a well-known Nobel Prize winning physicist (whose name will remain unstated so as not to embarrass him) who argued that the idea of “spontaneous generation” be abandoned in science once and for all. Spontaneous generation means that something comes into being with no cause. It comes from nothing. So far, so good. I was pleased to see a scientist debunk the myth of all myths, that something can come from nothing. This myth is still pervasive in the scientific community with respect to “chance.” Chance is given credit for creating the universe. However, such a prodigious feat is beyond the capabilities of chance. Why? Chance can do nothing because it is nothing. Chance is merely a word we use to explain mathematical possibilities. It is no thing. It has no power. It cannot produce, manage, or cause anything because it is nothing. It is spontaneous generation by another name.

I was glad the physicist repudiated spontaneous generation. My gladness abruptly turned to astonishment when the scientist said, “We must have a new model. We must speak in terms of gradual spontaneous generation.” I couldn’t believe what I was reading. “Gradual spontaneous generation”? How can something gradual be spontaneous? How can something spontaneous be gradual?

Our scientist wanted to debunk the myth that something can come suddenly from nothing and replace it with a better myth that something can come gradually from nothing.

I use this illustration only to show that even the most astute scientists can nod. They can fall asleep at the switch and be suddenly very unscientific in their pronouncements. To believe in gradual spontaneous generation of anything is to leap not by faith but below faith to credulity. Such a concept defies both aspects of the scientific method: rational deduction and empirical observation. Not only is the idea in violation of reason (breaking the Law of Contradiction), but it is impossible to observe empirically. What microscope or telescope is strong enough to observe anything doing something gradually spontaneously?

Occasionally, we read an article about why a certain scientist believes in God or why some other scientist does not. I am delighted when a scientist says that he has studied his area of science and is driven to the awesome majesty of God. But he is no more an expert on the existence of God than you are. Why? Because that is a theological question, not a scientific one. Today when somebody steps outside of his area of expertise, people tend to follow and believe him. That is the basis of much advertising. For example, a baseball star may appear on television and promote a particular brand of razors. If that star were to tell me how to hit a baseball, he would be speaking with authority. But when he tells me the best razor blade to buy is a certain brand, then he is speaking outside of his area of expertise. Advertisers understand that most people will easily transfer a person’s authority in one sphere to other spheres. Scientists may be guilty of this fallacy too. We must be wary of scientists who make theological statements outside the boundaries of their discipline.

Our Age Cries for Talented Christian Scientists!

Another important consideration is an assumption that concerns the scientific method. The scientific method of inquiry is based upon a combination of two elements of knowledge: induction and deduction. Induction involves observing, measuring, and checking out particulars. Deduction involves applying formal laws of logic and coherency to those particular pieces that have been found. Both elements are needed in seeking truth. Some people are strong at induction and weak at deduction. Others are strong at deduction but are a little short on their research, experimentation or observation.

Christian science is, in the fullest sense, the responsible, sober, careful, humble investigation of truth using both induction and deduction, yet assuming at all times Aquinas’s principle that truth meets at the top. Our age cries for talented scientists who see the scientific inquiry as a true vocation and as a response to the mandate of God Himself. Rather than flee from the scientific enterprise or embrace intellectual schizophrenia which only destroys, Christians are needed by the thousands to venture into the realm of nature, armed with the knowledge of grace. We can show that a God who exists on the other side of the wall is concerned with life on this side of that wall.

When we oversimplify theology or oversimplify science we encounter many difficulties between the two. Science is a complex enterprise. So is theology. Their relationship is to be studied closely and deeply if we are to discover an ultimate harmony between them.

One of my all-time favorite anecdotes concerns the meeting of a theologian and an astronomer. The astronomer was frustrated with the theologian for making religion too complicated. He said, “Why are you fellows so obscure? You talk about supralapsarian this and traducianism that. You quibble over fine points of predestination and God’s omniscience. For me religion is simple; it’s the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

“I understand your frustration,” replied the theologian. “You astronomers often confuse me with your talk of expanding universes this and exploding novae that. You’re always talking about astronomical perturbations and galactic anomalies. For me astronomy is simple: It’s twinkle, twinkle little star.”

Editor’s Note: This article was previously publihsed in Lifeviews by R.C. Sproul, first published by Revell in 1986.